Tag Archives: Trades Union

Alexander Wilkie: Scotland’s first Labour MP

Alexander Wilkie was born in 1850 in Leven in Fife, Scotland, where he became an apprentice to a firm of shipbuilders in Alloa. Although he spent his formative years and early adulthood in Scotland, it was on Tyneside, while living in Heaton, that he was to make his name, after he became the first General Secretary of the Associated Society of Shipwrights in 1882. This was an early national shipbuilders’ trade union and was based initially on the shipyards of Glasgow and Tyneside, reflecting the large number of ships being built on the Rivers Clyde and Tyne in the later years of the nineteenth century.

WilkieAlexanderresized

By 1897, Wilkie was also the Chairman of the Trades Unions Parliamentary Commitee and one of the founders and trustees of the General Federation of Trade Unions. He was a member of the Council of Federated Trades. He was also politically active in the nascent Labour Party and contested Sunderland for Labour (unsuccessfully) in 1900.

According to the census, Wilkie lived at 56 Cardigan Terrace, Heaton in 1891, before living at 84 Third Avenue in 1901 and then at 36 Lesbury Road (below) in 1911.

WilkieALevenHouse

Leven House on Lesbury Road, home of Alexander Wilkie

He named this last address ‘Leven House’ in recognition of his birthplace. In his personal life, Wilkie married Mary Smillie, daughter of James Smillie in 1872.

Wilkie was always involved in local affairs, wherever he lived. He was a delegate to the Trades Council in Glasgow when he worked there for the Glasgow Shipwrights. When he moved to Newcastle, Wilkie served for a number of years on the School Board and then on the Education Committee which replaced it. His interest in education was further developed, after he became a councillor in Newcastle in 1904.

MP

Wilkie was finally elected to parliament in 1906 as an MP for Dundee. He has the distinction of being the first Labour M.P. in Scotland. Hansard records his first speech to parliament being on 28 February that year, in an intervention during a debate about the Poor Law Commission. He spoke, he said as Scotland’s first Labour MP ‘to voice the keen disappointment of the Scottish workers that so far their claims to representation on this Commission had been disregarded.’

Labour then won 40 seats across Britain in the January 1910 general election including Wilkie himself, who was elected again in Dundee and was becoming something of a national political figure. He represented Dundee, in a two-seat constituency, alongside the victorious Liberal candidate, a certain Winston Churchill. Wilkie retained his seat in December 1910 as Labour won a further two seats nationally. He was to remain as an MP for Dundee until 1922.

However Wilkie retained close links with the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In 1910, he was made a magistrate here, while in 1917 he became a Companion of Honour. When he retired from national politics in 1922, Alexander Wilkie returned to his Heaton home and became an alderman.

It was surely very appropriate that on Mayday, 1 May 1914, the ‘Newcastle Daily Journal’ reported that Alexander Wilkie had been the honoured guest at a large gathering at the Cooperative Hall, Darn Crook. It was further reported that Wilkie was presented with a gold watch and a cheque, whilst his wife was given a silver salver. All this was in recognition of what the ‘Newcastle Daily Journal’ described as his ‘thirty three years service as Secretary of the Ship Constructors and Shipwrights Association, and in acknowledgement also of his work on behalf of trade unions generally’.

The Lord Mayor paid a special tribute to Wilkie saying that he had come back specially from London for the ceremony and that he had come not only as Lord Mayor, but as a personal friend of Wilkie. The ‘Newcastle Daily Journal’ went on to report that, ‘the gathering had been arranged in order that they might show that they recognised the services which Mr Wilkie had rendered to the community and to the labour world, particularly the shipwrights. They deserved also to show their affections to Mr Wilkie as a man of the world.’

Wilkie was a very active member of the House Commons and spoke on many issues. Despite these interventions including a wide range of topics, he never forgot his commitment to the shipyard workers in places like the east end of Newcastle and Wallsend. In 1918 for example, Wilkie spoke about naval shipwrights pay and skilled labour in shipyards, while the following year he spoke about increases to dockyard workers’ pensions and national shipyards.

Wilkie died on 2nd September 1928, at his home, 36, Lesbury Road, Heaton, and was subsequently laid to rest at Heaton Cemetery 5 days later His effects were valued at £11 302, which today would be about £675 000. From this Wilkie left his housekeeper £104 a year for life.

WilkieGraveHeatonCemeteryresized

Alexander Wilkie’s grave, Heaton Cemetery

The Fife Free Press reported on 8 September 1928 that, ‘the universal esteem in which he was held was evidenced by the large attendance (at Wilkie’s funeral)’ and that, ‘the hearse was proceeded by two open landaus heaped high with beautiful wreaths – tributes of esteem and affection from all sections of the community.’ The last rites were then performed as the band played ‘Abide With Me’.

Legacy

Wilkie left a huge legacy of trade unionism on Tyneside, with the shipyards at the forefront of this movement. Indeed by the end of the 19th century, north east England was the most unionised region of England, having already had unions formed in the mining and engineering industries, before the Associated Society of Shipwrights was formed in 1882. Wilkie’s work helped to build this tradition further. His political legacy can be seen in Labour’s dominance for many years in Scotland, particularly from the 1960’s onwards, until the landslide by the Scottish National Party in 2015.

Can you help?

If you know more about Alexander Wilkie, especially his time in Heaton, we’d love to hear from you. Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Sources

Jamieson, Northumberland at Opening of XXth Century, Pike, 1905

Newcastle-upon-Tyne Official Blue Book 1920

Newcastle Daily Journal 1 May 1914

The Fife Free Press, Saturday 8th September 1928

 

Acknowledgements

Written and researched by Peter Sagar, Heaton History Group, with assistance from Arthur Andrews.

 

 

 

Joseph Fagg Story – Food Prices and Impact on Wages

On 6 February 1916, an open letter appeared in the Newcastle ‘Daily Journal’ from Joseph Fagg, of 27 Third Avenue in his capacity as Branch Secretary of the National Union of Clerks. In the letter, he protests about the alarming advances in the price of foodstuffs.

Joseph Fagg's letter to the press

Joseph Fagg’s letter to the press

In the letter he reports that ‘Clerks, like the rest of their fellow workers have nobly responded to their country’s call and this heartless fleecing of dependents of our patriotic comrades is a matter calling for immediate and drastic treatment on the part of the Government.’

It’s not clear whether the original letter was addressed to national or local government, or indeed whether it was addressed purely to the press in order to gain public support. However it does appear to have been part of a coordinated local campaign to persuade employers to recognise the impact of food price increases through increased wages.

Resolution

The city council minutes of February 1915 record the receipt of a letter to the Lord Mayor from a Mr J Wilkinson, Secretary of the Newcastle, Gateshead and District Trades and Labour Council, urging the council to adopt the following resolution:

That this council views with indignation and alarm the present and rapidly increasing prices of the people’s food, due in our opinion, not to shortage, but to the operation of greedy speculators and ship owners. 

We strongly urge upon the government the absolute necessity of at once instituting an inquiry thereon, and, if necessary, that they control the purchase, transport and distribution of food during the present war.

 He concludes by pointing out that other countries are already doing this.

Co-ordinated campaign

It’s not clear what the council’s response to the letter was, however we do know that within a month, Joseph Fagg’s letter had appeared in the ‘Daily Journal’ and the council had received simultaneous letters from Mr J M Gibson, North East Regional Secretary of the Municipal Employees Association and Mr H Goodhead, Secretary of the Amalgamated Association of Tramway and Vehicle Workers, seeking pay increases to recognise the impact of rising food prices.

The Municipal Employees Association letter went to all councils in the region. In it, Mr Gibson points out that his association had initially ‘instructed its officers to refrain from making applications for increased wages which would in any way tend to hamper or hinder the work necessary to enable the government to carry the present regrettable conflict to a successful issue’. However he goes on to say that the enormous increase in the price of foodstuffs had ‘made it imperative that the workers’ wages should be increased if they are to maintain themselves and families in a state of efficiency’.

Further evidence of a coordinated campaign comes in both unions seeking an increase of five shillings per week.

The council referred consideration to a special committee, which met on 19 March 1915 and which representatives of both unions attended. The arguments rehearsed by the committee are remarkably similar to current day discussions about public sector pay rises under a policy of austerity:

-If the application is granted, then the applicants and their families will be appreciably better off than before the war, and they will be relieved of the burden of increased expense which should be borne by all, including the applicants;

-In many communities, if carried out, would be disastrous to those ratepayers, who, out of limited incomes, would have to bear not only their own share of the burden, but also that which should be borne by the applicants;

-Where war bonuses have already been granted to workpeople other than municipal employees, it has been to men particularly affected by prevailing conditions: eg to those who have to work more assiduously consequent on excessive shortage of labour by means of the war, or to those who are called on to work long periods of overtime in work directly connected with the production of materials of war and the like. This is not the case as regards the present applicants.

War bonus

Despite these misgivings the Council made an offer of a war bonus of:

-2s per week to people earning less than 30s per week

-1s per week to those earning between 30s and 40s per week

-1s per week to boys under 18.

After further representations this was increased by a further 6d per week for all but boys under 18, to be reviewed in six months.

This was to be the first war bonus paid to the council’s employees, with further successful applications made in 1916, twice in 1917 and 1918.

A Special Committee report dated 23 December 1918 recorded the total annual cost of war bonuses to municipal employees (excluding tramway staff and attendance officers and nurses employed by the education committee) to be £10,285.

The total value of war bonuses for municipal employees at that point were:

25s per week for unskilled men

28/4 per week for labourers to skilled men; and

30/9 to 39/3 per week for skilled men

This represents almost a doubling of salary.

Price rises and shortages

Of course, the increases in food prices and food shortages were very real and badly affected the whole population. It is estimated that a pint of milk that cost 1d before the war cost 6d by the end of the war.

The reasons for the rising food prices were mainly linked to food shortages caused in part by the loss of skilled farm labourers, going off to war, but also of horses. Farms in the early 20th century were still heavily dependent on horse power, as was the army and many farm horses were requisitioned by the government

To add to the already escalating food prices and shortages, the 1916 potato harvest suffered severe blight, leading to the city council to send a telegram in February 1917 to the Ministry of Food expressing concern about severe shortages and that local farmers may be holding back supplies to keep prices even higher.

A response from the Controller of Food states that investigation of the matter by a local inspector indicated that the situation in Newcastle was not worse than in other parts of the country and reflected an abnormal shortage of potatoes due to failures in the harvest, not only in the UK but across the world. The response ends by stating that ‘it cannot be expected that persons in Great Britain will be able to obtain more than a small proportion of their normal requirements’.

Recipes

This would have been a particularly heavy blow as potatoes had been widely used as a substitute for other foodstuffs that were in short supply. A Ministry of Food leaflet titled Thirty Four Ways of Using Potatoes (other than as a vegetable) claimed that Britain had an unprecedented surplus of potatoes – over 2 million tons and encouraged people to use them as a replacement for grains, already in short supply.

Recipes included Treacle Potato Pudding:

1 lb. mashed potatoes,

1 egg,

half an ounce of sugar,

1 ounce of ground rice,

1 ounce of cooking fat,

flavouring essence or other flavouring,

3 tablespoons full treacle,

1/2 teaspoon full of baking powder.

Coat a plain charlotte mould whilst warm with a layer of thick treacle. Mix the potato, egg, sugar and melted butter together and add a few drops of flavouring essence. Stir in, lastly, the baking powder. Put the mixture into the prepared tin and cover with a greased paper. Steam the pudding slowly in a pan containing boiling water in a moderate oven or in a steamer for about 1 and a half hours. When cooked, turn out carefully on to a hot dish and serve.

Submarine warfare

The situation deteriorated even further when, on 9 January 1917, Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare. This meant that British merchant ships transporting food from overseas would be at risk of being sunk, worsening the shortages.

On 2 May 1917, the city council considered the urgent need for food economy. The lord mayor stated that the ‘proclamation of the king as to economy in food would be publicly read by the town clerk the following day and he suggested that copies of the leaflet be distrusted to scholars in each of the public and private schools in the city; that the proclamation be reprinted and exhibited inside the tramcars and that posters calling attention to the need for economy in the use of food be placarded on the outside of cars; and asked the members of council to arrange open air meetings in their various wards for the purpose of impressing the need for economy among their constituents.’

King George V’s proclamation

WE, being persuaded that the abstention from all unnecessary consumption of grain will furnish the surest and most effectual means of defeating the devices of our enemies, and thereby bringing the war to a speedy and successful termination, and out of our resolve to leave nothing undone which can contribute to these ends or to the welfare of our people in these times of grave stress and anxiety, have thought fit by and with the advice of our Privy Council to issue this our Royal Proclamation, most earnestly exhorting and charging all those of our loving subjects, the men and women of our Realm who have the means to procure articles of food other than wheat and corn, as they tender their immediate interests and feel for the want of others, especially to practise the greatest economy and frugality in the use of every species of grain and wheat.

AND we do for this purpose more particularly exhort and charge all heads of households to reduce the consumption of bread in their respective families by at least one-fourth of the quantity consumed in ordinary times, to abstain from the use of flour in pastry, and, moreover, carefully to restrict, or wherever possible to abandon, the use thereof in all other articles than bread.

AND we do also in like manner exhort and charge all persons who keep horses to abandon the practice of feeding the same with oats or other grain, unless they shall have received from our Food Controller a licence to feed horses on oats or other grain to be given only in cases where it is necessary to do so with a view to maintain the breed of horses in the national interest.

AND we do hereby further charge and enjoin all ministers of religion in their respective churches and chapels within Our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland to read or cause to be read this Our Proclamation on the Lord’s Day for four successive weeks after the issue thereof.

Given at Our Court of Buckingham Palace this second day of May in the year of Our Lord 1917, and in the seventh year of our reign.

GOD SAVE THE KING.

Purple ribbon

On the day of the publication of this historic document Sir Derek Keppel, Master of the Royal Household, said: ” The king would never ask and has never asked his people to make sacrifices in which he is unprepared to share. He will do consistently what he asks the general public to do, and, what is more to the point, he has already done and is still doing it. We are all on strict rations here and have been since the beginning of February.”

People showed their commitment to the King’s appeal by wearing a purple ribbon. Lord Davenport, the Food Controller strongly believed that the solution to shortages was a voluntary approach and he echoed the King’s proclamation with his own circular on 29 May appealing to the public’s patriotism. However, it soon became clear that a firmer policy was necessary as a Board of Trade report showed a 98% increase in the price of food since the start of the War. Lord Davenport and his replacement, Lord Rhondda acted quickly, enforcing a wide range of restrictions under the Local Authorities Food Control Order 1917, which fixed the prices of some foodstuffs including:

  • Brewer’s sugar;
  • Sugar;
  • Milk;
  • Swedes;
  • Potatoes.

And it applied controls to the use of others, particularly, bread, flour, cakes and pastries, as well as limiting the use of grain to feed livestock and preventing its use in feeding game birds.

WW1 Ration Card

WW1 Ration Card

Detail from a WW1 ration card

Detail from a WW1 ration card

Heaton Avenues in Wartime

This article was researched and written by Michael Proctor for Heaton History Group’s ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project, which has been funded by Heritage Lottery Fund. An exhibition, ‘Feeding the Avenues’, will be on display at the Chillingham pub from early August until late October 2015.